Mumbai-based software engineer Aman Khurrana (name changed), 32, recently complained of decreased sleep, appetite loss, upset stomach, headaches and crying spells with no particular underlying physical conditions. His therapist pointed out that his obsession with the news might actually be getting out of hand. "It all began at the start of the pandemic but continued. I kept tracking the numbers of infected people in the city and the country. It gradually phased to reading up about variants and other infectious diseases. I didn't know how and when to stop."
In the case of Abhishek Nayak(name changed), a 27-year-old entrepreneur who has been following the political campaigns in the country, the news began affecting his social life and moods. "I started getting into lengthy, unnecessary arguments with friends and members of the housing society WhatsApp group. I sensed that people started avoiding me, and I was left out of my friends' plans. I felt lonely, isolated."
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Experts believe that globally, the phenomenon of headline stress has been around for a very long time. It was evident in the United States following the Ebola outbreak and the Monkeypox virus outbreak in Nigeria. China witnessed the same disorder with the onset of the COVID19 pandemic. This was the same time when India saw the headline stress repercussions at its peak. Continued updates of the spread of the virus, the extent and outcomes of the havoc wrecked by it, and vivid doomsday predictions cast a spell of mental anguish and gloom for most people tuning in. Most recently, the world is experiencing it all over again with the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Dr Fabian Almeida, a consultant psychiatrist at Fortis Hospital, Kalyan, helps define the phenomenon by saying that headline stress is a highly emotional response to continued news reports of anxiety-inducing crises. Dr Aman Bhonsle, a psychotherapist, mindset coach and author, agrees with Dr Almedia. "The pandemic has catalysed people to be more invested in daily events and current affairs because they have been scared for their lives. What we are experiencing here in India was maybe being experienced in Serbia not too long ago, or is currently being experienced in Ukraine and Russia. The fear for one's life has become prominent, and the only way to know how much of a risk factor there is or how it's going to affect you is to follow the news."
While it may seem challenging to nip the negativity in the bud and move on, experts say it is possible to manage and control this behaviour and lead normal lives. Lounge discovers how.
The problem with news presentation
Reading the news can be stress-inducing at the best of times. When the news is particularly worrying, many of us experience levels of anxiety so high that we can have difficulty coping. The visuals and headlines that scream disaster at us can certainly be a reason for the vulnerable person to become anxious, nervous, angry, frustrated and affect their sleep and feeling of well-being. As Dr Almeida puts it, the news itself has much lesser mental health implications than when presented with all the drama and histrionics added to it—a regular occurrence today. "News channels often explode with 6 to 8 people competing on that one screen frame, for time, space, attention, and sound bytes, shattering the viewer's peace of mind and emotional balance," he says.
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In his opinion, all of this can end up with us reaching pathologically identifiable levels of stress, fear, anxiety, panic. Furthermore, in the case of people already diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it could escalate symptoms. "The 'intent', 'content', and 'extent' of the news bytes, also plays a huge, contributing role towards the damage being done, hence 'prevent' is a justifiable word in the dictionary of the individual at risk." Dr Kersi Chavda, a consultant psychiatrist at PD Hinduja Hospital & MRC, Mumbai, concurs. "There is news about wars and civic unrest, impending ecological disasters, failing economies, and violent, sad local events. We passed through a long period of terrible news related to the covid pandemic. And while there has to be awareness of what is happening in the world, and while the intent may be to warn readers about possible health dangers and empower them to avoid them, news content may sometimes lead to worry and anxiety."
A cocktail of curiosity and anxiety
Another point-of-view is presented by Dr Bhonsle, who examines behavioural tendencies as a cause for headline stress. In his opinion, the cocktail of curiosity and anxiety can lead to headline stress as individuals are curious about what is going on in the world and anxious about how it will affect them in terms of their livelihood, social life, lifestyle, schedule, loved ones, etc. If any of these factors get affected, it will cause trouble and discomfort, which leads one to do a risk assessment.
He further says that everyone worldwide looks for moral problems to solve since we as a species have an innate curiosity. "We like to solve problems, and if we don't find problems to solve, we like to create problems so we can solve them," he says, pointing out that this is unlike most other animals, who are more focused on their physical needs—food, shelter, procreation. "But for human beings, we want to build skyscrapers; we want to build cults; we want to invest in organic farming because we like solving problems. So this tendency which is now being called headline stress disorder is a byproduct of that curiosity and boredom which results in anxiety," he says.
He mentions that some people have predispositions that would make them more vulnerable than others. "If you have a history of anxiety, getting worked up, losing your cool. If you have a proclivity towards extreme behaviour or these kinds of knee jerk reactions, then yes, it will be consistent with the patterns of being more prone to headline stress."
Symptoms to watch out for
Dr Almeida details the symptoms of headline stress. Like any other form of stress, headline stress can lead to restlessness, fear, overthinking, anxiety, irritability, tremulousness, panic, catastrophic thinking, dry mouth, stomach upsets, crying spells, decreased sleep & appetite, and more. "These symptoms can further decrease our ability to be attentive and focused in our work at hand, thereby decreasing work output and efficiency. When stress levels build up, it tends to cast its shadow of dark despair upon our relationships, self-esteem, and self-confidence, impacting our life and lifestyle negatively on a daily basis," he says.
Dr Chavda believes that each individual will react differently, "The general rule associated with feeling anxious points to a genetic component that makes us react very differently from those who do not have that predisposition," he clarifies. He says that the elderly, the dependent person, the person who is having anxiety and depression can have a greater propensity towards getting into a cycle of anxiety and panic related to the headlines that are read. "Females seem to be more affected than males," he adds.
Dr Bhonsle mentions that some general behavioural symptoms that one can look out for include spending a lot of time on the phone, debating endlessly with people on WhatsApp groups and other forums, forwarding things without checking the source, not interacting with those who have different opinions from yours, and in general, falling into the trap of information bias. "As a result, your real-life starts getting affected. Some people are so severely affected that it affects their work-life too. They'll go to work, and instead of doing the work they are being paid to do, they will waste time thinking and talking about these issues instead." He adds that sleeplessness may also be a symptom at times as one will stay up following the news and discussions about current topic
Managing headline stress
While headline stress and following the news can become obsessive and even addictive over time, there are ways to manage the behavioural patterns. Dr Almeida suggests that one should be vigilant and pick up the signals that your mind and body give of the wear and tear coming through due to the increasing levels of stress experienced. "Just as we must eat only as much as we can digest and feel comfortable, it would be best to restrict our levels of news intake to that which we can tolerate and manage, without adverse effects."
He adds that one should preferably follow the news in the earlier half of the day and keep away from media histrionics during the latter part of the day, as this helps to ensure better sleep too. His other suggestions include fighting fears with relevant facts, avoiding fiction and futuristic imagination, expressing one's thoughts and fears with those who matter, paying attention to happy news, too; all of it helps reduce stress levels significantly. Dr Chavda advises that one should meditate, do physical activities and pursue hobbies and interests instead of getting caught up in the loop of news and headlines.
Dr Aman Bhonsle shares three handy tips for managing Headline Stress:
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) counsellor